Cinema is like religion: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Published: October 29, 2014
Controversial Iranian filmmaker talks to The Express Tribune about his
latest film The President and why he doesn’t live in Iran anymore.

Controversial Iranian filmmaker talks to The Express Tribune about his latest film The President and why he doesn’t live in Iran anymore.

LONDON: Growing up in Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was not allowed to go to the cinema because his grandmother believed that those who did would end up in hell. Over 20 films and 120 international awards later, he has become the leading voice of didactic cinema in Iran. With his latest feature film The President recently screened at the 58th BFI London Film Festival, Makhmalbaf talks to The Express Tribune about his life, from being a political prisoner to unchaining his creativity with film.

From imprisonment to emancipation

Imprisoned by the State at the age of 17, Makhmalbaf was freed, five years later, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Most of Makhmalbaf’s fellow detainees were tortured and, when released, became the very epitome of the dictatorial figureheads they had once strived to depose. Makhmalbaf sought an answer to this proliferation of the Realpolitik and hoped to share his understanding with others.

When he finally went to the cinema after being freed by the Revolution, the experience had a life-changing effect on him. He discovered the ‘power of cinema’ as if he were a ‘blind person’ given the ability to see and immediately understood its value as a tool to change the cyclical violence fundamentally entrenched in culture from within.

Makhmalbaf  and The President

The idea for The President came around eight years ago when Makhmalbaf was at the Palace of Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan, standing at the edge of a hilltop that looks out over Kabul. He pondered over the concept of a dictator, commanding the city’s lights be turned on and off just to entertain his grandson.

The President follows the lives of a dictator and his grandson, who are on the run after the downfall of his totalitarian regime. STOCK IMAGE

While the film’s script was initially due to be set in Afghanistan, Makhmalbaf was unable to pin down a producer at the time. But three years later, the harrowing consequences of the Arab Spring compelled him to revisit the script. “I cried a lot for the Syrian people,” he says. “Look at the last three years and how many people have been killed by the exact same concept and tragedy that you will see in The President,” he adds.

The outcome of his train of thought was The President, a film that follows the lives of a dictator and his grandson, who are on the run after the downfall of his totalitarian regime. It seeks to “explain the tragedies of dictatorship and revolution,” as Makhmalbaf explains, creating an impact not only as a reflection of the prevailing events in the Middle East, but also as a study of human nature.

Impact on the Iranian regime

There have been significant consequences to the Makhmalbaf family for documenting taboo aspects of society and the perils are all too apparent in the resulting violence and fear thereof that follows Makhmalbaf and his wife and children. The family works as a sort of mini-studio under the banner ‘Makhmalbaf Film House’, as they continue to challenge the status quo. While they now live in France, the family cannot go back home to Iran and Makhmalbaf fears that no country is safe from Iran’s reach and their active pursuit to have them killed.

He alleges that the Iranian government has made several attempts on both his and his family’s lives. This includes detonating a bomb on his elder daughter Samira’s set while she was shooting Two Legged Horse (2007) in Afghanistan, which resulted in one person being killed and 20 others being injured. Despite these threats, he remains devoted to the cause and is even prepared to die for it. “If hundreds and thousands of people have been killed by dictatorships, why should we be silent and do nothing? It is our responsibility,” he maintains.

As a direct consequence of Makhmalbaf’s documentary Afghan Alphabet (2002), an Iranian law prohibiting Afghan child refugees from attending school was repealed. As a result, 500,000 Afghan children on the Afghan-Iran border were enrolled into the Iranian education system. “Afghan Alphabet proved that cinema can lead to great social upheavals and had I been born to make just this one film, it would have been worth it.”

What’s next for Makhmalbaf

Describing his style as ‘poetic realism’ and his films “between fiction and documentary, reality, poem and philosophy,” Makhmalbaf refuses to be restricted by conventions. Although he has previously made films comprising elements of fiction and documentary styles of storytelling, his most recent efforts lean towards documentary-like features, including his previous feature film controversially shot in Israel, The Gardener (2012).

The President, however, is set in a fictional country with an ambiguous ending and is his most fictional and also, arguably, most commercial film to date. An advocate of peace and the idea that borders and labels increase violence, Makhmalbaf has a humanistic approach towards society.

“We are first human beings, then we are men or women, then we are Iranian or British, and then we are Muslims or Christians. The cinema is [like] religion… it is the religion of human beings. Who put borders between us except politics, religion and economy? We should kill these borders and not human beings,” he comments.

He may be yet to disclose the concept for his next film (he has about 30 complete scripts to choose from), but one thing we can be sure of is that it will most certainly have something to say about the world and perhaps, even change it. Lauded for his eclectic, innovative style of filmmaking, he continues to push the envelope both in terms of his work’s aesthetics and socio-political relevance. Makhmalbaf really is as he describes himself: “A man standing on planet Earth, with [his] hand [touching] the sky.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2014.

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